The Sober Science

Mark Lilla

  • German Ideology: From France to Germany and Back by Louis Dumont
    Chicago, 259 pp, £25.95, March 1995, ISBN 0 226 16952 9

The modern social sciences were born out of modern political philosophy. Overtime, those sciences declared their independence one by one from the philosophical tradition, then tried to reshape it after their own image. The intimate relation between economics and Anglo-American liberal thought, now centuries old, offers a classic example. A similar story might be told on the Continent, though for different social sciences in different countries. When, for example, the Continental Left sought a non-liberal alternative to orthodox Marxism in the post-war years, the Germans leaned towards sociology, the French towards anthropology. In part, this choice was dictated by political events. The Frankfurt sociology of Jürgen Habermas became prominent in the wake of the Wirtschaftswunder, while the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss spoke to French misgivings about the colonial experience. In both countries these disciplines became as much means of engaging in politics as sciences for studying it.

The age of structuralisms is past in France, yet anthropology continues to shape the conceptual language of French political thought. This is somewhat surprising. The abandonment of Marx, Hegel and Nietzsche by Raymond Aron’s intellectual heirs has led few of them to adopt the language of Mill, let alone that of John Rawls. Many have turned instead to the work of the anthropologist Louis Dumont, the great specialist of India now retired from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. Dumont was a student of Marcel Mauss and a contemporary of Lévi-Strauss who was virtually unknown to the literate public before the mid-Seventies. Only with the collapse of the intellectual Left did French readers discover through his work that one could be a non-Marxist, non-structuralist anthropologist. If Dumont’s research was inspired by any great thinker, it was Tocqueville. What François Furet did for French history, Dumont did for anthropology, turning it away from engaged politics and towards the sober study of the modern age.

Dumont’s monumental study of India, Homo Hierarchicus, had the misfortune of being published in 1966, just as structuralism was breaking out of the seminar rooms and onto the front page. In the excitement surrounding Todorov’s Théorie de la littérature, Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses and Lacan’s Ecrits, Dumont’s book appeared to be little more than an academic monograph. In fact, it announced a new approach to the study of differences between modern and non-modern civilisations. In a now famous Preface Dumont argued that anthropology had foundered on the problem of individualism. Some anthropologists, he noted, studied inequality among individuals in societies where the very notion of the individual was absent. The new structuralists, on the other hand, made the inverse mistake, treating modern societies as though they were ‘structured’ like pre-modern ones, their individualism being only an ideological veil for power. Anthropologists saw individualism either everywhere or nowhere. Dumont saw instead two types of society that had to be studied in very different terms, terms he derived, in part, from Tocqucville.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville had studied the individualism of a modern society from the standpoint of a vanished hierarchical one. In Homo Hierarchicus Dumont wanted to reverse this by studying a non-modern society – in this case India – from the standpoint of our modern, individualistic one. This comparison led him to develop a conceptual distinction between ‘holistic’ societies ruled by the principle of ‘hierarchy’, and ‘individualistic’ ones governed by the principle of ‘equality’. Dumont never meant to suggest that individuals cease to exist in one society, or that the social whole dissolves in the other. Both are always present, but only one dominates as a ‘value’ or ‘ideology’, to use his terms. Indeed, the greatest challenge any society faces is coping with the existence of the very thing it does not value, or perhaps even recognise. Dumont’s analysis of the Indian caste system shows how its treatment of the religious sect and the unworldly holy man (‘l’individu-hors-du-monde’) makes the hierarchical order more flexible without destroying it.

Dumont’s view of modern individualistic society, even in this early work, is far more pessimistic. He presumes that man is by nature a social animal born into a whole whose existence is the fundamental fact of human life. Hierarchical societies can recognise this and still make room for individuals who do not fit neatly into their categories. Individualistic societies, by contrast, put individuals first, and therefore have trouble making sense of the existing social whole. Dumont went so far as to suggest that totalitarianism and modern racism were actually perverted attempts to recover or impose a sense of the social whole in societies that had already entered the individualistic age. When a society finds itself stalled between hierarchy and individualism, barbarism can result.

Dumont’s cryptic remarks about totalitarianism were not made casually. He had spent much of the Second World War in a German POW camp, where he learned both Sanskrit and German, and refers obliquely to this experience when discussing the development of his research. Although he remains by profession an Indologist, over the years he has progressively turned his attention to the development of modern society and what he calls homo aequalis. (The English titles of Dumont’s books unfortunately mask the unity of his later writings. From Mandeville to Marx, published in 1977, bore the title Homo aequalis I in French, while the book under review here was called Homo aequalis II.) Dumont’s recent work poses two questions. If man is by nature a social animal, how did modern man come to convince himself that he is naturally an individual? And, if modern society assumes the fundamental values of the equality and liberty of individuals, how did it simultaneously give birth to totalitarian ideologies?

These questions may be new for anthropologists accustomed to studying remote, non-modern societies, but they are extremely familiar to historians of modern ideas, who may lose patience with Dumont’s somewhat laborious manner. This would be unfortunate, for some of his fundamental ideas deserve attention. Dumont began by attempting to systematise the development of Western political and economic thought up through the 19th century on the basis of his anthropological scheme, first in From Mandeville to Marx, then in his Essays on Individualism (1983). He concluded that Europe had indeed experienced a great transformation, from a holistic world based on hierarchical values to an individualistic one recognising the values of equality and liberty above all others. In conventional French fashion he presented the birth of Christianity and the French Revolution as the two hinges of history: the first representing the birth of the individualistic idea, the second its social realisation. Modern history, seen in this perspective, became the story of the individual’s liberation from religion into politics, only to be followed by his enslavement to economic necessity.

This interpretation of modernity is hardly novel, but in the terms set out by Dumont it made a great impression on younger French political thinkers, who were abandoning Foucault for Tocqueville. Yet, as his French critics pointed out, Dumont makes grander claims for the principle of individualism than even the author of Democracy in America did. In order to transform Tocqueville’s essentially historical distinction between periods of Western life into a conceptual distinction between types of societies everywhere, Dumont had to ignore other sources of Western exceptionalism. As a result, Classical Athens and Rome appear as ‘holistic’ societies comparable to contemporary India or South American villages, and not as political societies that long ago began to redefine the relation between individuals and the social whole. Dumont’s achievement as an anthropologist is to have recognised the distinctiveness of modern individualism; but that achievement has been purchased at the price of denying other significant differences between the pre-modern political West and the non-modern, non-political non-West.

Other limits to Dumont’s approach become apparent in his new book on homo aequalis, German Ideology. The product of long reflection on German national character and genuine familiarity with its history. Dumont would like it to appear as the next logical step in his programme. Having traced the ‘ideological’ development of modern individualism, he now presents a comparative study of its national variants through a series of portraits of German authors and their ideas, followed by a short essay on French political ideology.

The book is probably less significant as a contribution to our understanding of Germany and France than for the light it sheds on Dumont’s earlier, more substantial work. It now becomes clear, for example, that he developed ‘holism’ and ‘individualism’ as types, at least in part, to help explain the failures of modernisation around the globe. These failures should not surprise us, he suggests, once we recognise that individualism transforms all societies into living contradictions. Nations that backslide into holism or experiment with cultural miscegenation are not freaks; they are simply trying to solve the conundrum bequeathed to them by modernity. There are no fundamental solutions to this problem, Dumont believes, only different, unsatisfactory national compromises to be worked out.

This interpretation of what he calls ‘acculturation’ is a novel way of approaching the problem of failed modernity outside Europe, or at its periphery. Yet rather than study these areas, Dumont has chosen to examine national differences within modern Europe, which he believes can be explained in the same terms. The book’s argument, concisely stated, is that German ‘nationalism’ and French ‘universalism’ are both cultural by-products of modern individualism. Dumont repeats the old saw that a Frenchman considers himself a man first, and French only by chance, while a German considers himself to be essentially German, and human through this national identity. He believes a great truth lies buried in this commonplace and tries to offer an anthropological explanation of it.

The German ideas of Bildung and Kultur, for example, he portrays as holistic reactions to the social atomisation and cosmopolitan humanitarianism of the Enlightenment. Yet the principles of holism and individualism were perversely combined when the Germans began to consider their nation to be a cultural monad closed onto itself, thus preparing the ground for racist totalitarianism. The French, by contrast, found a way to reconcile individualism with a universal humanism by imagining their own conceptions of citizenship and the republic to be exemplars for all nations. But since France is ideologically uncomfortable with cultural particularity, even its own, French politics has been divided internally on the question of national identity, which every nation needs. The Left champions universalism but confuses it with the peculiarities of French culture; the Right can appeal to the nation only by ignoring or distorting all that has happened since 1789. Dumont concludes that the encounter with modern individualism led the French to develop two distinct forms of cultural intolerance, both quite different from the German variety.

Whatever one makes of these portraits of national character, they are unsatisfying as explanations of why things turned out so differently in modern France and Germany. One reason is that Dumont attributes virtually no significance to politics as an independent factor in shaping national destiny. He views every feature of modern society, including its politics, as an expression of ‘culture’, and therefore of the great individualistic revolution, he does not entertain the idea that nations like France that experienced modern political revolutions became different in kind from those which did not, like Germany or Italy. This reductionism is familiar enough, in no small part because Dumont himself exposed it in the work of social scientists who saw a ‘structure’ lurking behind every human phenomenon. His earlier work showed that individualism in the West is not an ideological illusion, it is a reality, however discomfiting. One wonders, then, why he did not take the next step, and recognise that the independence of individuals from hierarchy could, under certain conditions, also render modern politics independent of ‘culture’ as conceived by anthropologists. That recognition might have led him back to the philosophical tradition from which anthropology departed, a tradition both ancient and modern that considered man to be naturally, or at least potentially, a political animal. After studying the ways of homo hierarchicus and homo aequalis, he might then have considered whether the elusive third man, homo politicus, offers an alternative to both.